Silent Star of May 1996

Theda Bara

This month's "Silent Star of the Month" profile on Theda Bara comes courtesy of Eve Golden, author of the recently published "Vamp: The Rise and Fall of Theda Bara," Emprise Publishing Company, Vestal, New York.

Theda Bara - one of the most successful and glamorous stars of the 1910s - is also the most inaccessible and mysterious today. She stood behind only Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin in popularity, yet today it's nearly impossible to view her work. Of the more than 40 films she made from late 1914 through 1926, only three and a half remain. The facts of her life were so jumbled by studio publicity that even her birth date and place have been obscured. Yet her image remains lodged in the public's mind some 70 years after her retirement, and she is one of the few stars responsible for a word - "vamp" - being placed both on the dictionary and in everyday use.

According to her studio, Theda Bara was born around 1892, in the shadow of the Pyramids, the daughter of an Italian artist and a French actress. Everyone knew from the start what nonsense this was; these stories were never meant to be taken seriously. Film history books state that Bara was actually born in 1890, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Yet this also turns out to be a myth: a little research reveals that Theodosia Goodman was really born in Avondale (a wealthy, largely Jewish, suburb of Cincinnati) on July 29, 1885.

Unlike so many silent stars, Theda (a childhood nickname) had a happy childhood. Close to her parents and two siblings, she even went to college for two years, an unusual accomplishment for a woman of those times. Aggressively intellectual, Theda remained a voracious reader for the rest of her life, especially enjoying philosophy and psychology.

She was also enamored of the theater, and dropped out of school (to her father's dismay) in 1905 to pursue an acting career. It's embarrassing but necessary to admit that Theda Bara did not have whatever it took to become a stage star. From 1905 through 1914 she labored mightily in New York and in various travelling stock companies, but was never able to rise above playing bits on Broadway or supporting roles on tour. She was already pushing 30 when director Frank Powell cast her as The Vampire in William Fox's film version of the Broadway hit A Fool There Was (1915) (released in January, 1915).

Theda became an instant, overnight star with the release of the film, and saved the fortunes of the fledgling Fox Studios. She'd been a rather solemn and pretentious teenager, but happily she recovered from this, and her cooperative good nature made her career. Fox press flacks John Goldfrap and Al Selig supplied her with a new family history (and past life) for each film role, and Theda played along. Dressed in veils, furs and silks, petting a python and nibbling on raw beef and lettuce leaves, she deadpanned her way through hundreds of ludicrous press conferences. Reporters played along and printed the interviews with a straight face, for the most part.

The only thing that frustrated Theda was her screen roles: most of them were lifted from dated Victorian novels and stage plays like The Two Orphans (1915), Lady Audley's Secret, East Lynne (1916) and La Belle Russe (1919). Others, hastily written by Fox scenarists, played off the success of A Fool There Was (1915), and cast Theda as unrepentant vamps bent on wholesale destruction: Sin (1915), Destruction (1915), The Vixen (1916) and The Rose of Blood (1917).

Theda fought for better roles, and she sometimes got them. Her personal favorites were as an heroic Foreign Legion girl in Under Two Flags (1916) and as an innocent Irish peasant girl in Kathleen Mavourneen (1919). She also played the great heroines of history and literature, such as Cleopatra, Salome, Carmen, Juliet, Madame DuBarry and Marguerite Gautier. All in all, not a bad career.

She was smart enough to save her money and enjoy the moment. From 1915-17, Theda's films were made on the East Coast, with occasional location trips to Florida. When it came time to shoot Cleopatra (1917) in the summer of 1917, however, Theda was dragged kicking and screaming to California. She never got used to the West Coast, with its lack of museums, bookstores, theater and decent shops, and to the end of her life kept a New York apartment furnished and ready for vacation trips.

By the time America entered the World War, Theda was the third biggest star in the nation. She joined the war effort with great enthusiasm, visiting camps, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in War Bonds, contributing her salary to charity. Songs were written about Theda, postcards and magazines featuring her face sold briskly. Dangling earrings, kohled eyes, languorous glances and the catch line "Kiss me, my fool!" entered the public consciousness.

Of course, it couldn't last. By 1919, William Fox had lost interest in Theda, who was actively campaigning for better films and more varied roles. The straw that broke the camel's back was Kathleen Mavourneen (1919), the film Theda hoped would be her ticket to a contract at another studio. Instead, Irish and Catholic groups protested not only the depiction of Ireland, but of a Jewish actress in the leading role. The film was yanked after several movie-theater riots and bomb threats.

But Theda Bara did not end up a bitter, impoverished recluse, as did several of her fellow sex symbols. In 1921 she married successful director Charles Brabin, a marriage that lasted till her death. The Brabins were wealthy globe-trotters, and Theda's skill as a hostess and gourmet cook made their Beverly Hills home a favorite stopping place for the film community through the 1950s.

Her one regret was that Brabin did not want her to act (she made two films in the mid-1920s, while her husband was in Italy directing the early, shelved version of "Ben-Hur). But in a way, the fact that Theda Bara never spoke on-screen makes her all the more fascinating and mysterious. While we can hear Mary Pickford, Lon Chaney, Charles Chaplin and Norma Talmadge speak, only a treasured few stars -- Theda, Rudolph Valentino, Barbara LaMarr, Wallace Reid, Constance Talmadge -- remain forever silent.

Sadly, Theda remains almost invisible as well. Somewhere out there, undoubtedly, are a few reels of Cleopatra (1917), Salome (1918) or some other missing Bara film. The questions remains if they will see the light of day before crumbling away to dust.

Glen Pringle /
Eve Golden
Copyright © 1996-2012 by Glen Pringle and Eve Golden
ISSN 1329-4431